PicoBrew Pico Model C review: The PicoBrew Pico Model C is almost the perfect beer bot

Tasting notes

Given roughly $25 per PicoPak and a couple of weeks of waiting time and anticipation, it's quite disappointing when the beer doesn't turn out. Fortunately, even if you don't know what you're doing, that's less likely on the Model C than on previous models, but it's still not impossible even if you're being careful.

Two flat beers

I made six beers over the course of a few months of testing with the Model C. Two were flat. I made them at the same time, as they comprised the second round of my testing. The Model C only comes with one set of kegs, so if you want to make multiple beers at once, you'll need to buy a second $60 brewing and $15 serving keg.

A couple of factors could have contributed to the beer turning out flat. The biggest issue is that the seals for the serving kegs don't hold up well to multiple uses. The seals combine rubber and plastic and work well the first time, but despite taking care while disassembling, cleaning and reassembling them, the plastic parts of the seal felt flimsy when I put them back together. I saw a little bubbling right after I filled the kegs and sealed them, so I'm guessing they weren't airtight. 

Not being able to use seals twice is disappointing, but not quite a deal breaker. You can buy a set of three seals for $6 and I'd recommend using a new one for each batch to avoid this problem. You might occasionally be able to get a second use out of a seal if you're crafty, but the flimsy plastic will cause leaks for most after it's been disassembled once. 

The beers also might not have carbonated properly because the room temp where I was storing them was too low. I'd turned down a temp-controlled lab to help the brews ferment. PicoBrew instructs you to carbonate at the same temp as your fermentation, but the exception to that rule is lagers. Lagers need colder fermentation temps, and a PicoBrew rep later told me I should have turned the temp back up before carbonating. PicoBrew's instructions don't walk you through that exception.

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The seal on the serving keg doesn't hold up well on multiple uses, but it's easy to replace. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you're in a rush to try your beer, the Model C includes a couple of carbon dioxide canisters and a regulator so you can force carbonate the brew instead of using a more natural process with priming sugar.

One bad batch

More worrying than the bad seal -- one batch turned out infected. The infection almost certainly happened because I made a mistake somewhere along the way. This was the last batch I made, so perhaps I needed to do another deep clean on the machine (I did one after batch two). Perhaps in my cleaning, a missed a spot under one of the seals. I clearly introduced a contaminant at some point, but my screw-up shows that the machine still isn't foolproof, and I was following the directions carefully. The Model C also doesn't come with anything to help with the lengthy fermentation and carbonation steps, so you'll be responsible for finding a good temperature controlled area in your house to avoid issues like infection.

Infection is a part of brewing life. Home brewers suffer its effects frequently and even professional brewers occasionally lose batches, but it's still something to keep in mind. You'll be better able to avoid infection if you have some experience home brewing before you use the Model C, which might mean you don't need an automated machine to make your beer in the first place.

Getting it right

Finally, three of our six beers tasted like solid brews I'd order in a bar. 50 percent might not seem like a great ratio, but the flat beers tasted fine aside from the one issue, so if they were sealed properly, they might have been quite good. The three good beers are worth particular attention, as they show the pros and cons of the process even when everything goes right.

The Stargazer IPA I mentioned earlier was my favorite of the three good beers. A couple of folks in the office didn't like it, but they generally don't like IPAs. A couple of us went back for a glass or two after our initial tasting. The aroma was particularly awesome. The Stargazer kit included a few packets of hops for dry hopping -- which is where you add hops after fermentation but before carbonation specifically to help the aroma. The process worked very well.

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Our first beer smelled great from beginning to end. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

We also dry hopped our first beer -- called The Pale Hoppy Thing from Flying Bike Brewery. Again, Pale Hoppy smelled great. It tasted very bitter, especially at the end. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but again it turned off a few folks in the office. I'd also call the flavor more akin to a hoppy IPA than a Pale Ale, which tends to be a more balanced style. That said, I had seconds of that batch too.

Finally, we tried Buffalo Sweat, an oatmeal stout from Tallgrass Brewing. It was strangely sweet, but not bad. We tasted it side by side with cans of Buffalo Sweat, and the cans were dryer and less sweet. Now, a can of beer isn't going to taste the same as beer fresh from the tap, but the difference between the two was more than a matter of freshness. They tasted like two different stouts. The Model C's version was pretty good, but no one wanted more after the initial tasting.

When everything goes right, the Model C can make good beer, but it might not be a perfect replica of the brewer's version of your PicoPak.

The verdict

In truth, I don't know what else I'm looking for. PicoBrew can't make the process much simpler while sticking to the traditional stages of brewing, and beer from concentrate doesn't sound appealing to me. Other automatic brewers are on the way that promise more help with the later stages of brewing like fermentation. The competition, though, is either much more expensive, or has been promised for awhile without coming to fruition. The Pico Model C is here now, it's reasonably priced, it's fairly simple to operate and it can make good beer.

Perhaps my goal of a fully automated beer brewing robot is an unachievable ideal. The reality of this machine is that it's still not a great fit for lots of beer fans. If you want to brew at home, starter home brew kits cost as little as $50. You'll probably get a better beer from the Model C than you would from your first time brewing from a starter kit, but you won't learn anything from the Model C. If you just want to drink craft beer, you probably have lots of cheaper options if you live anywhere near a city. If you really want to try one specific beer, you can probably buy a domestic plane ticket for the cost of the Model C and visit the brewery itself. 

If you're a dedicated craft beer fan who is particularly interested in trying lots of brews from lots of different places, then you're in the right demographic for this machine. You'll want at least a little home brewing experience to guide you through the sanitation steps, and then the Pico C is worth considering particularly if you live in an area without access to a lot of craft beers. The replicas might not be perfect, but if you're careful and know what you're doing, they'll be close. The Model C is the closest we've come to the dream of a perfect beer brewing machine. It's still not quite there, but if you're willing to trade an occasional headache or bad batch for access to lots of beer, then this beer bot is worth the purchase.